Chuck Todd’s accusation that conservative outlets are to blame for the public’s growing lack of trust in the media was still in a steaming pile on the ground when two of America’s biggest papers had to scramble their way to corrections this week.
Both The New York Times and Washington Post had to perform reconstructive surgery on stories critical of the Trump administration. The botched reports indicate a different cause for the public’s lack of trust in the media: a years-long trend of exaggeration, innuendo and flat out false reporting on Trump.
The Washington Post reported in late August that the Trump administration is cracking down on passports at the border, in contradiction to official government statements and other publicly available facts. That story is still unraveling. And last week, The New York Times falsely framed Nikki Haley as responsible for an expensive curtain purchase that was in fact made by the Obama administration. Both outlets overhauled the stories and issued lengthy corrections.
In both cases, journalists shirked reporting standards as basic as reaching out to key players in the story, or putting the facts in their proper context. They exemplify the trend of bad reporting that has come to mark the established outlets waging open war on Trump, and is no doubt fueling distrust in the media — perhaps to a greater extent than the established press would like to admit.
Let’s go through these two reports one by one.
The Washington Post is standing by its August 29 report that the Trump administration is cracking down on potentially fraudulent passports, although it is marked by a stunning number of reporting failures, detailed most thoroughly by The Huffington Post on Monday. Reporters and editors on the story got facts wrong, misled readers, left out key data contradicting the premise of the article, and failed to reach out to the family of a deceased man accused of fraud in the story.
The initial story claimed the Trump administration is taking unprecedented action against thousands of Hispanic people living near the southern border suspected of having obtained false U.S. birth certificates. It was based largely on anecdotal evidence from immigration lawyers working in the area who said they are seeing a surge in the number of passports under scrutiny.
Within hours of its publication, a Slate reporter pointed out the practice of denying passports to people issued birth certificates from midwives suspected of fraud began under the George W. Bush administration, and continued through the Barack Obama administration. The story was corrected Aug. 31 to reflect this error. The story also asserted the Trump administration is newly targeting people delivered by a Texas doctor suspected of fraud, but HuffPo reports that practice also predates this administration.
After the State Department released numbers contradicting the story’s premise a few days after publication, editors added a new claim — that the Trump administration was newly denying passports to people living far from the border. HuffPo found this too was a practice that predates the Trump administration.
Those numbers provided by the State Department showed that not only has the rate of passport denials declined under Trump, but the number of passports under scrutiny has also declined. Editors issued a Sept. 1 correction to reflect that the rate was lower, but left out the numbers indicating the total number of passports under scrutiny is also lower.
Following these two major corrections, reporters continued to find problems with the paper’s handling of the facts and new contradictory information, particularly about the deceased doctor named in the story. The reporter did not reach out to the doctor’s family for his side of the story, although he is named as under suspicion of fraud by the government. And he was wrongly identified as a gynecologist, when he is in fact a general practitioner.
The family reached out to the paper immediately after the story was published, hoping to correct the record, but the paper ignored them for nearly two weeks, until HuffPo asked about the inquiries. Finally, the paper issued a third correction on Sept. 13 incorporating the family’s perspective.
Although there is now a lengthy editor’s note at the top of the weeks-old story, the piece still fails to meet basic reporting standards. HuffPo summed it up this way:
… as it stands, the Post’s report remains misleading. It relies on anecdotal evidence to make an explosive claim that’s contradicted by official data ― and doesn’t make that fact clear. It implies that years-old practices are new. And the paper consistently refused to correct the record unless it was called out by other reporters.
On the same day Washington Post issued its third correction to this story, The New York Times published a hit on Nikki Haley that was problematic in a less complicated way, but more brazen in its disregard for the basics of reporting. The remains of this report are comically banal. It was initially a “bombshell” implying Haley should be potentially removed from her post as ambassador for needlessly lavish spending as the State Department implements budget cuts, but is now a toothless report on the Obama State Department’s years-old decision to buy pricey curtains for a new ambassador residence.
The first headline read, “Nikki Haley’s View of New York Is Priceless. Her Curtains? $52,701,” and was splashed next to a photo of Haley. Buried in the piece, however, was a line contradicting the impression the article was framed to create — “A spokesman for Ms. Haley said plans to buy the curtains were made in 2016, during the Obama administration. Ms. Haley had no say in the purchase, he said.”
After initial criticism, editors moved that line up several paragraphs, but eventually rechecked the facts and overhauled the entire frame of the story. One Obama administration official said the curtains were chosen in part for security reasons.
Editors added a note to the top of the article acknowledging the story was “unfair” to Haley:
An earlier version of this article and headline created an unfair impression about who was responsible for the purchase in question. While Nikki R. Haley is the current ambassador to the United Nations, the decision on leasing the ambassador’s residence and purchasing the curtains was made during the Obama administration, according to current and former officials. The article should not have focused on Ms. Haley, nor should a picture of her have been used. The article and headline have now been edited to reflect those concerns, and the picture has been removed.
Note the mention of “current and former officials” who confirmed Haley’s story. It seems the paper didn’t find Haley’s on the record statement contradicting the premise of the story to be believable, and didn’t even bother to double-check the facts until after the story ran. Instead, the paper buried her statement and hit publish on its preferred spin of the facts.
Okay, let’s recap some of the problems with these reports: failure to reach out to subjects of the story, failure to conduct a basic review of the facts, failure to put the facts in context, failure to verify information from sources. These are the same failures of basic due diligence in reporting that have felled report after report after report after report in the Trump era. It’s increasingly difficult to explain away this steady stream of flawed reporting (almost always on Trump) as honest mistakes, particularly when, as demonstrated in these two cases, outlets are slow to correct them or demonstrate an apparently reckless reporting process.
Whatever is at bottom here, whether it’s conscious or unconscious bias, or the pace of the news cycle, or the streamlining of the editing process, or honest mistakes, the failures of outlets like The New York Times and Washington Post to rectify the problem is fueling Trump’s war on the press, and contributing to a growing credibility problem with the public that is bad for the institution and for this country.